Abstraction in a Cold Climate
Report from… Boston
Kristin Baker is not to be held responsible for what the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston claims on her behalf. I noted this to myself as I read the website copy for Kristin Baker: New Paintings: “This collaged layering of streaked color evokes the acceleration of matter across a surface, light through space, and action over time in ways that blur conventional definitions of painting.”
At the exhibition itself, the wall text put it this way: “[It] is ultimately her painterly attention to making, or facture, that becomes the focus. In these new paintings, Baker continues to stretch conventional definitions of what a painting is—and can be.”
And after my visit, I perused the press release, which promised that an October 21 gallery talk with MFA curator Jen Mergel and conservator Carol T. Henderson would reveal wonders: “They will address how curators appreciate Baker’s work because it stretches one’s understanding of painting (traditionally oil on canvas) in exciting ways… Both perspectives offer new insights into contemporary works that are pushing the limit of conventions with exciting new art.”
I’m sorry I missed that, because I would have liked to ask curator Mergel a question: Did conventions kick her puppy? Every weapon in Baker’s arsenal— squeegee painting, masking, acrylics, plastic supports, and raucous-looking abstraction— had been explored before Baker was born in 1975. She is not defying conventions, but employing them in a particular unison. Conventions are positive and enabling, and shortcomings in choosing them well or using them well are not the fault of the conventions themselves. Anyway, it is not as though anyone is forcing contemporary artists to work in a particular style. I assert further that no one—not a soul—thinks of painting as oil on canvas and only that. Mergel is directing a critique at a stultified, conventional character that exists only in her imagination, for the purpose of making Baker appear to be the revolutionary that she is not.
The MFA show consists of four paintings intended for its new Community Arts and SMFA Gallery, thusly named due to its dedication to School of the Museum of Fine Arts alums like Baker. This cruel revision of the I.M. Pei-designed Museum Road entrance is as dismaying as the new Americas Wing is stunning, but it created more wall space, and her eight- to ten-foot paintings use it well. Until a few years ago, Baker’s masked, smeared acrylics on white PVC depicted race car crashes in a style with precedents in Pop and Futurism. She has discarded the imagery, which must have taken some courage. Now the vertiginous perspectives and the tumbling autos have been sublimated into arrangements of crisp shapes. In the better ones, you can still hear the roar of the engines. Her most handsome effect is the squeegee application of dark colors on the white PVC, which results in a look akin to strips of errantly exposed film. The strongest of the four is Matter Facture, in which blue-black walls, beams, and a mighty triangular slice set up interjections of translucent rose and opaque white.
But Baker’s talents are straining as she attempts to put a painting together without the benefit of imagery. Full Dawn Parallax is a catalog of everything that goes wrong when you’re out of your depth as an abstractionist: fruit salad colors, a composition that doesn’t suggest that any of the four edges should be the top one, and an excessive sameness of component parts that degenerates into clutter. Baker painted it on clear instead of white PVC, and mounted the panel on a framework that lifts it a foot off of the wall. The resulting transparency is enervating, replacing needed bright whites with mousy frosted plastic that doesn’t register as part of the work. Rime Affinity indicates that she should avoid making high-key paintings. She’s better with black at her disposal, creating illusory transparencies instead real ones, such as in Refraction Within. This work looks like it was collaged from enlarged x-rays, and painted over with the same aesthetic and color scheme that inspired Bumblebee the Transformer. It falls short, but it is nonetheless dashing.
There happens to be a lot of noteworthy abstraction on view in Boston at the moment. Joanne Mattera at Arden Gallery, for instance, manipulates encaustic and iridescent pigments to produce luscious surfaces that look like a fusion of stained glass and raku. Across the street at Miller Block Gallery, Imi Hwangbo is showing elegant constructions of cut Mylar, hung on the wall in layers so that the removed pieces form a topographic floral design. Choice of materials, precision of execution, and elements like the vertical cut that runs through the flowers in Sanctuary, gives these works an architectural austerity that counters a certain “girliness.”
Over on Harrison Street, Walker Contemporary is showing work by an artist with a related sensibility: Benicia Gantner, who works with hand- and machine-cut vinyl on Plexiglas or flat paper, forming vistas of biomorphic silhouettes and complicated stencils. They look like Inka Essenhigh run through Thomas Nozkowski. Ruby & Gold Waterweb makes striking use of the vinyl, all sharpness and mechanical flatness, as it depicts an implied forest scene with teeming paisley undergrowth, schematic trees, and fuchsia garlands against a flickering burgundy sky. It lent noticeable warmth to the real sky over Boston, full of crosswinds and the sobriety of November.
Kristin Baker at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 2, 2010 – March 27, 2011
Joanne Mattera at Arden Gallery, 129 Newbury Street, Boston, November 2 – 29, 2010
Imi Hwangbo at Miller Block Gallery, 38 Newbury Street, Boston, November 12 to December 23, 2010
Benicia Gantner at Walker Contemporary, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston, November 5 to December 18, 2010